American Transplants


Story By Alan Cesar

Put the top down. Feel the wind blast your kidneys. Round the curve, pull the shifter down a gear, tilt your head back, and squeeze on the throttle. The roar’s crescendo battles with the mountainside, reflecting back to your ears to mingle with the smell of roasting tires and spent fuel.

The numbers aren’t everything. We love fast cars for those sensations they bring. When we’re looking for a way to escape the antiseptic office, noisy shop, shuffling paperwork or clanging machinery, car guys like us twist the key and feel the engine come alive together with our own heartbeat.

The best way to have this experience is with an open-top car, ideally one with a healthy V8. The uninhibited view approximates the freedom of a motorcycle, but with room to pack enough supplies for a weekend away with your partner in crime. The burble, bark and spit of eight cascading combustions are best enjoyed in good company and without a back window to block the sound.

The Trip to Today

After popularizing the idea of a sporty roadster filled with horsepower, Carroll Shelby moved on from the AC Cobra and put his hand to the Sunbeam Alpine. During its transformation into the Sunbeam Tiger, the lightweight, topless chassis received an all-iron, 260-cubic-inch Ford V8. The Tiger is perhaps the Cobra’s subtler brother: The Sunbeam still wears undeniably British looks, but it’s not as flashy. It gets attention cruising down the boulevard as pedestrians hear that off-idle thrum.

After the oil crisis, however, factory-built compact roadsters with ridiculous power essentially disappeared from the market for a few decades. Cars like the Tiger and Cobra barely made sense when new; during the ’70s and ’80s, car companies couldn’t even consider offering such creations.

It wasn’t until the ascent of the Mazda Miata that enthusiasts even had a fresh new roadster.

Though a few other small convertibles have come and gone since the Miata arrived–most notably the Honda S2000 and Pontiac Solstice–none of these was offered with V8 power from any dealership. The job of creating V8 roadsters has been left to industrious, ambitious enthusiasts and the aftermarket.

Miatas started receiving engine transplants from the moment they hit the U.S. market in 1989. Many of those early examples were dubbed Monster Miatas, named for the company that developed the first Ford-based kits. Around that time, Flyin’ Miata was earning prestige as the leader in Miata turbocharging. More recently, with the help of V8 Roadsters, Flyin’ Miata branched out into V8 swaps.

The powerplant de rigueur today is the General Motors LS-series. It’s inexpensive, ubiquitous, and can produce incredible power. Flyin’ Miata offers a kit to build your own V8-powered car, but they can also build a turnkey conversion to your specs.

So did the small V8 roadster die in the ’60s, or does its spiritual successor make a worthy substitute? We met with Bill Cardell, the owner of Flyin’ Miata, to find out. Bill brought his company’s development vehicle, a third-generation Miata powered by an LS3 engine.

Though the company has dubbed their V8-swapped car the Habu–a Japanese name for a small, venomous snake–this particular development vehicle has a special name: Atomic Betty.

Bombshells of Delight

The Habu is the new standard for V8 Miatas. Flyin’ Miata installs a new front subframe developed by V8 Roadsters and bolts on other aftermarket components to build fast, road- and race-ready Miatas. Their selection of suspension, brake and safety components makes it easy to customize a Habu for your needs.

Atomic Betty, named after a Canadian TV cartoon series, provides seemingly nuclear power levels, but it’s actually fairly mild. The engine is a simple number in a GM Performance Parts catalog, rated for 430 horsepower and nearly as much torque. Think about that for a moment: It has more than double the horsepower of a stock Sunbeam Tiger engine, and you can order it out of a catalog. (Thankfully, our Tiger in this comparison is not stock.)

Betty is a 2009 model equipped with a retractable hardtop and plenty of creature comforts, but a modern car’s computer system is tightly integrated into the whole chassis. This raised a particular challenge when it came to that retractable hardtop: It won’t operate until the engine computer sends it a speed signal that verifies the car isn’t moving too fast. Since the GM engine electronics don’t speak Mazda, Flyin’ Miata had to make a signal converter box to translate the GM speed signal. (Soft-top cars are unaffected.)

The same translation problems made it nearly impossible to use the Mazda instrument cluster, but the gauges that replace them are attractive and multifunctional–they even display engine trouble codes. Underneath, Betty has bigger brakes, stiffer springs and adjustable shocks. All those details help a Habu feel complete, as though it were built by a major automaker with a big R&D budget.

Though Flyin’ Miata regularly works with racers and has the inventory to make incredibly mean track machines, they’ve set up Atomic Betty as the ideal street car.

All that extra metal hanging in the nose doesn’t transform Betty into an unruly teenager: Its weight distribution moves just 1 percent forward. Lowering the power hardtop returns that 1 percent to the back wheels. Total weight gain is just more than 200 pounds.

The Growling Feline

Our 1965 Sunbeam Tiger project was no beauty when we got it. We yanked it out of a storage building where it had sat since 1974, the year its original 260-cubic-inch engine let go. At one point, its exterior had been repainted brown and its interior redone in black; thankfully, though, it was light on rust.

That’s just the right kind of project for us. Bodywork can quickly escalate restoration costs, but Ford V8 engines are common as apple pie and about as inexpensive. We were going to upgrade the engine in whatever Tiger we found, so this–car No. 746–was a perfect candidate.

After fixing up a few dents and dings and restoring the car to its original colors, we set about upgrading the driveline. We wanted a machine that we could comfortably take on long-distance vintage rallies, and the torque of more cubic inches was calling.

We opted for a 331-cube V8 pushing more than 420 horsepower. We upgraded the Ford top-loader transmission and rear axle to handle the extra grunt. More importantly, we added bigger Wilwood brakes to the front, with vented discs and four-piston calipers. These fit inside our 15-inch wheels, which helps keep the car from looking ridiculous.

We planned to drive this one regularly, so we aimed for good manners rather than maximum originality. We gusseted the crossmembers, strengthened the anti-roll bar mounts, and relocated the Panhard bar to remove the inherent bind in its geometry. (We’ve done far more than that, though. Look back at our Tiger’s project car series for all the details.)

Once it was complete, we took it on the Going To The Sun rally in Montana and have done several other rallies since then.

We’ve racked up thousands of miles in our delightful roadster, including a trip on Amtrak’s Auto Train. We were curious as to how it would fare against the new breed.

Driving Miss Betty

Driven hard, the Habu displays all the reasons why it’s such a great platform for an engine swap. It feels light through corners. The steering provides excellent feedback and precise control, but it’s just as satisfying to tilt your right foot. Those two controls in concert allow you to slide the car with millimeter precision.

Its multilink rear suspension is completely capable of containing the extra horsepower without shifting or hopping. Flyin’ Miata’s stiffer springs and anti-roll bars are the perfect complements to this setup. The car corners flatly but is never harsh.

Torque is abundant enough that you could probably never shift gears. But when you want to, the pedals are perfect for heel-toe shifts. The gear lever, though slightly heavy, is still satisfying to flick and never leaves you uncertain about what gear you’re grabbing.

On calmer drives, it’s as docile as a rabbit. Clutch take-up is gentle and the pedal is light. The bigger brakes aren’t oversized, so they’re easy to modulate.

The Habu’s interior is simple and functional, exactly what you get in a Miata. With so much power, it would be silly to skimp on options to save weight. It carries cup holders, air conditioning, cruise control, power windows, a good stereo and satellite radio, all with Japanese reliability.

This modern platform is built to a price, however. The seats may be leather, but plastic panels and switchgear abound. The steering wheel is nice, but doesn’t feel special. The Miata’s exterior styling is not everyone’s favorite, either–whether you love it or don’t, it certainly doesn’t have the charm of a classic British roadster. It’s manufactured, not handcrafted.

Lassoing the Tiger

It’s a shame we drove the Miata first, because we came back to the Tiger wanting to throw stones at it. Sometimes we forget how far automotive technology has come over the decades.

With its softer springs and dampers, the Tiger’s body pitches and rolls much more. The relatively imprecise steering goes light and loses feedback under throttle. The whole machine is harder to control. Tall tire sidewalls don’t help.

Putting the power down is easy once the car is settled, though, and it accelerates with that grin-inducing bark you can only get from a Ford V8. It’s a good thing torque is equally plentiful in the Tiger, because shifting is a chore. Rowing the four-speed requires a deliberate punch and a little faith every time. Working the clutch is reminiscent of leg presses at the gym.

Drivability isn’t much improved on the street. The Tiger’s brake pedal is rock-hard, and the engine will overheat if you idle too long. Its tall final drive makes for comfortable highway cruising, but we had to be careful not to stall it when pulling away from stop signs. The easy solution is, of course, to rev it out and dump the clutch, departing in a cloud of tire smoke.

Visually, the Tiger excels at delivering class and style. The whole look is very nautical: Nardi steering wheel, wood dashboard, bright chrome fuel cap, external trunk hinges, and door latches that close with an audible click. Its single-bar grille between those raised, round headlights add elegance that a new car can hardly dream of.

Pick Your Predator

These two cars have the same formula, yet they couldn’t be more different. The Tiger is a tough-to-tame brute hiding under a skin that speaks of refined tastes and understated looks. The V8-powered Miata, on the other hand, is an exquisite chassis and a powerful drivetrain inside a somewhat antiseptic modern car.

Both are unabashedly fast. Both handle well compared to their contemporaries. Both have excellent club support and easy parts availability. Both have tried-and-true American engines. We’ll gladly take either one for a weekend trip (though we’d pick the Habu to live with on a daily basis).

What’s more, they’re both great purchases. This is normally where we’d offer buying advice, but your mind is probably already made up. It’s just as well.

Cars like these aren’t logical purchases. You know which one is for you at first glance. The Tiger will appreciate in value and will always turn heads, but it handles like a yacht.

The Habu will easily outrun Corvettes on track without abusing you on the street, but it carries little prestige. It’s up to you to decide which you consider an asset.

Regardless of which you choose, we can guarantee you this: When you’re hearing that dual exhaust echo back as the tires howl in protest, you won’t be thinking about what you could’ve had. You have it.

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